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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona basketball searches for its missing ‘swagger’

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Tyler Besh
Tyler Besh / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Something is off with Arizona.

In recent games, the Wildcats have been off their game.

Arizona has lost four of its past seven games, dropped to its lowest rank all season (No. 18) and looks like a middling team in a mediocre Pac-12.

“We just have to keep on staying with it and get our swagger back,” sophomore guard Nick Johnson said.

To me, at least, “swagger” is a strange and annoying word. But for this Arizona squad, Johnson just might be right.

The energy is gone. The play is actually cringe-worthy at times.

Opponents shot 46.9 percent during the seven-game slump, resulting in an average of 69 points per game. Considering that that’s perilously close to 70, the breaking point for the Arizona defense (Arizona is 4-6 when teams score over that amount, 19-0 when they’re under), the recent dip in play makes complete sense.

Head coach Sean Miller even said so after the USC loss. The Wildcats have somehow shifted from playing like one of the best defensive teams he’s had at Arizona to being the absolute worst he’s coached.

The “what” isn’t the issue. It’s the “why,” and that’s where Johnson is on point.

“We definitely got to get [our defense] back,” Johnson said.

“That’s what made us so good. That’s why we rode on our string of wins. Just get our defense and swagger back.”

If this was a one or two game sample, the high shooting percentages could be chalked up to a hot night by the opponent. Cal and USC both made over 58 percent of their baskets; even with poor defense, that’s not a repeatable offensive output. But the decline in defensive play continues to rear its ugly head, forcing me to use another unsubstantial word to explain it — effort.

It’s hard to imagine players not giving their all in a college basketball game. And yet effort has been the buzzword of late, especially after the Washington State and USC games. The players are trying; some just aren’t as locked in and focused on defense as they need to be, and the results haven’t been pretty.

Senior Kevin Parrom has been one of the players frustrated with the defensive effort. But in Saturday’s loss to UCLA, Parrom started to see signs that the will is returning. With that comes the missing swagger.

“It’s coming,” he said. “That swagger has to come back in order for us to win some games, and it’s coming. I’d rather go through what we’re going through now than in the NCAA tournament or in [Las] Vegas [for the Pac-12 tournament] … Every team goes through this, and it’s just a matter of fighting through.”

Sometimes it’s easy to remember the 14-0 start to the season and overlook the Cardiac ’Cats part of the era.

Florida gifted Arizona the win back in December — a game in McKale Center where the Gators clearly outplayed the Wildcats. Johnson saved the San Diego State victory with an incredible block. If he was a split second later, it would have been a loss.

Then there was the Sabatino Chen debacle, where Colorado’s buzzer beater was called off for some reason. Even if the officials made the correct call (they didn’t), Arizona still bridged a 10-point gap in the final 1:50. That was as much of a Buffalo choke as a Wildcat comeback.

The recent slump could just be the odds evening out. The poker hands went cold, and the Wildcats are now embracing their true identity.

Miller and senior Solomon Hill have both said multiple times that Arizona hasn’t played like an elite team as of late. The coach even said this isn’t a top-8 team; it’s more like a top-25.

He’s right, but so are Johnson and Parrom.

The natural regression was inevitable after so many close wins. Arizona has looked like a completely different side in Pac-12 play, though. With the addition of five new faces in the 10-man rotation, the Wildcats should be peaking, not slumping.

The story goes deeper than a law of averages, and since Parrom said the swagger and confidence comes from within, Arizona still has hope.

With how mad things get in March, Arizona has the potential to be a Sweet Sixteen team, maybe even a title contender.

It just needs to start playing like one. As much as I hate to say it, the Wildcats really do need to find that missing swagger.

— Kyle Johnson is a journalism junior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @KyleJohnsonUA.

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